how to work out where to start and cut your scene


Well-Known Member
May 4, 2007
I am sure part of this is practise, and part of it is studying existing books and I will at some point put some stuff in the critiques section, but it's something I consistently struggle with so I wondered if anyone had any tips. If I know a particular event is relevant, how much of a run up do you give it? How do you find the happy medium between giving pages of unnecessary description of a character's life, and suddenly starting with no preamble?

An example - I want to add some scenes at a festival (think weekend event, rather than cChristmas or 4th of July). There are several separate things I'm wanting to show that may be separate scenes throughout the festival. I have my metaphorical cameras taking footage of my characters for the event - where do I snip it around those scenes so we have atmosphere, but no unnecessary waffle , and nothing too sudden? If you have a scene to demonstrate something small and particular, how do you not make it seem jarring?
By jarring, I'm assuming that what you mean is you want to avoid giving scene A, then the next para is scene B, then you're into scene C, all without preamble. That is, you want to smooth out the scene changes but without padding. If so, then to me the easiest way in this case is to have one of your POV characters wandering around the festival, moving from one interesting stall to another -- she sees just what is necessary, no more, before walking on, with just linking clauses like "She stopped for a third time at..." or "She walked across to the far side of the field where..." -- you don't have to detail all her movements, so just precis what she does to get to each separate incident. If that's not possible, or each individual scene is too long for that to be effective, then perhaps have literal scene breaks, and just jump forward in time/place as necessary -- though having too many short scenes of that kind can create a staccato effect and are perhaps best avoided outside crime novels and thrillers.

As for how much detail to give, that's hard to judge in the abstract. If she's looking at a pottery stall, you obviously don't want to go into detail about how the pots are made unless it's going to serve as a plot point, but if this festival is itself important then you might want to give a few lines about how it arose or where it's held.

I tend to write long in my first drafts, that is I go round about and incorporate a lot of stuff that perhaps isn't necessary, and then on revisions I go through and pare it down, whittling away the excess, which for me is far easier than trying to add something to a skeleton. So it might help if at this stage you just splurge it out and don't worry about the unnecessary waffle -- get it all down in the first instance and then come back to the chapter some time later when it's easier to be objective about what's needed. At that point go through and analyse the writing in detail and ask youself what would be lost if that particular clause/sentence/paragraph were to be deleted. If the information is necessary for the plot, or to give atmosphere or characterisation, then look to see whether the line can be re-jigged so the information is still given but in tighter form. (An excellent way of learning to write more tautly is by taking part in the Challenges where word count is limited -- the current 300 worder is still open, so why not have a go and get some practice in!)
An idea I find useful is to join the action already in process. Not only does it make a sedate scene more immediate, but it makes the scene more compact. And I don't mean shorter, but denser - more action in fewer pages so a 5 page scene has more happening than a 5 page scene that spends a lot of words easing the reader in.

The reader may work initially harder to understand what is happening, but this kind of active reading is more rewarding.

A separate idea: If you are depicting a number of small events at the festival, don't present them in time order. Find some other logic to string them together, and then use a mix of referential dialogue, flashback and real time description to put them into the characters' perception.
It sounds like a pacing problem. Last time I got stuck on that, I wrote the scene too long several times even after someone else showed me a bit of pacing that was suitable.

Dragonriders of Pern have some festival scenes. I want to say that Dragonsong might be a good place to search for someone buying a mug or the words gather, gathering, and marks. Anime also has a festival that shows up. Sailor Moon had one, and I think A Silent Voice also had it.

Something that helps is figuring out why the scene is there. If it's conversations, the conversations carry a lot of the weight. Maybe a character is introspecting while wandering around. I'm not sure what to do if the festival is the star, but it can be done.
Not exactly certain this will help:
I've pulled out three successive scenes from my second novel and will give a bit of summary.
This first scene: after the MC-POV has been cautioned about avoiding certain new arrivals; she is focused on finding her 'boyfriend' to discuss their relationship; while distracted she is introduced to a new character. The point of the scene is to reintroduce the atrium and specifically the Java Mocha(her favorite coffeehouse restaurant)and some description coming from her POV which in some ways limits just how much description there might be, but it does this while moving things forward with the introduction of the new character and her interaction.
Copyright material from Electric Touche said:
Wasting my lunch break looking for Steven, I’ve no clear plan to what I’ll do or say when I find him. I really need to cut him some slack, bite the bullet, and come out and say that we should just be friends. It’s just that that was the story of my other life. What makes things more difficult is my confusion over whose fragile feelings I’m trying to preserve here.

From the third level looking over the atrium at the end of the axis corridor, which empties out into the wing with all the shops, I look across the rail. To my left and down one level is the cafeteria. It’s a good place to hesitate while trying to strain to see if I can make out Steven’s distinctive shape.

Someone’s hand grasps the rail next to my arm. I turn up sharply, expecting to see someone I know. The gaunt face of a rail-thin tall dark-haired woman looks down at me. She smiles. “Excuse me. But you look like someone who might know their way around here. I’m new and could use some assistance.”

Realizing I’ve nothing better to do except eat, I nod. “Sure, what do you need?”

Looking out across the panorama, she says, “I was looking for a place I could get a quick light lunch. What would you recommend?”

Looking all the way down to level two at a familiar spot, I wonder if I should go there. There are many fond memories of Doc at the Java Mocha. I look back at the woman. She’s really pale; she could use some sunlight. I finally knuckle under “How are you, as far as coffee goes?”

She makes a slight face. “Not real fond. I usually have a little coffee with my sugar and cream.”

I smile. “That’ll work.” My hand is pointing downward. “The Java Mocha has soup, salad, and sandwiches. They have other things besides coffee, but they do have plenty of sugar and cream.”

She smiles a big bright smile and offers her hand. “That sounds perfect. My friends call me Madken.”

“Travis.” I take her hand and add, “I bet you’re wondering how it is I have a boy’s name.”

Madken has a twisted smile. “Oh, not at all, until you mentioned it. Please join me for lunch, and you can tell me about it, if you’re so inclined.”

Turning, I take a long hard look down upon the open area of the cafeteria once more. I could just go down there and face whatever I have to face with Steven.

Madken says, “I’ll understand if you’ve other obligations.”

I shake my head. “Just have to get back to classes soon.”

Then the scene breaks to the next scene in the open dining of the Java Moche with more description

The main purpose of this again is to move things forward while there is a bit more description of the scene and some info about the MC that will help the reader and it uses part of the previous dialogue to continue dialogue while squeezing in the info-dumping. At the same time the dialogue itself acts as a beginning introduction of the new character.

Copyright material from Electric Touche said:
I’m enjoying the fake sunlight. Madken is also leaning back against its impact. We’ve been trading pleasantries while waiting for our meals. I’m having hot cocoa with mine. She went for something with hazelnut whip cream and lots of sugary stuff. She breaks the silence, “So, Travis, does it bother you having a name that seems normally reserved for boys?”

“Oh. Not really. It would be my own fault anyway.”

Madken uses her hand to shade her eyes, looking under it. “Why do you say that? Most of us are given our names. We become accustom to them. Only occasionally do some change their given names.”

I look partway away from her. “It’s a bit complicated. One could rightly argue that Travis is not my given name.”

Putting her hand down and worrying some lines across her brow, she asks, “Then just what would your name be?”

It takes me a moment of concentrated effort before I respond, “Lucia, I guess.”

Madken laughs. “You don’t sound at all convinced.”

This makes me laugh and shrug. “I respond more quickly to Travis.”

Madken looks to be contemplating something while I take another bite of my sandwich. “So, Travis, I understand there’s been quite a bit of excitement on the station lately.”

I lift my cup to gaze at the smear in the bottom. “It’s certainly been tense and intense. I’m not sure if I’d call it exciting. I don’t think things are that way most of the time. I’m glad it’s over with.”

Madken hesitates, “Oh, well, did you know some of the people who were hurt?”

Twisting the cup in my hand, I say, “I lost a good friend.”

Madken’s voice softens, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I’m sorry it happened.” I look up and away toward the chronometer, which stands in the center of the semi-circle we call the square. It’s directly in front of the center corridor in the atrium that leads to the outer ring and the access to the intra hull. Below us one level the matching corridor is closed off with the emergency decompression hatches. Those will remain closed until we finish repairing the damage done by the incendiary.

After remembering what I was attempting to do, I sit up and register the time before saying, “Oh, hey, I’m going to be late.” I stand up and push the chair aside.

Madken reaches out with one hand, touching mine. “Why don’t you sit back down and finish lunch? I think I can make things right with your teachers.”

There has to be some caution about older folks, newly arrived, who claim that they can make things right in any disciplinary situation. I look at her and then away.

Her voice softens, “Please. It’s the least I can do for all your help and your pleasant company. Sit. I promise to be quiet so you can finish. Then we can walk down to my office.”

Well, she already has her own office. That’s something. It’s not like she’s twisting my arm. And I really do need my sustenance. If I don’t eat well, I lose my focus and tend to be cranky. Sitting slowly and relaxing as much as possible, I pull my plate toward me. She has a certain fragile smile.

I shouldn’t endeavor to break it by refusing.
Then the scene breaks and goes to the next scene that continues some description of the scene and introduction of a character that the MC already knows which introduces more backstory information about the MC while it moves the story forward when she realizes that this person, she has just met, is specifically the one she was told to avoid. The purpose of these three scenes is to introduce the new character and have the MC realize she has messed up bigtime while allowing herself to be distracted with her life's drama. And while doing that some of the scene of where they are is being described while backstory and info-dump inform the new reader and remind the ones who read book one.

Copyright material from Electric Touche said:
We’re walking toward the CORE on level two, and that will take us right by Doc’s old office. Madken has remained mostly quiet as she promised. I’m not sure what authority she might have, but since I’m now late anyway, I’ll humor her. Being new to the station is going to reduce her value points in the system.

As we come up on Doc’s old office, someone steps out. As soon as I recognize her, I call out, “Hi, Sheila.”

Sheila’s wearing her whites, so she’s working or on her way. She seems to take an extra moment before responding. She has a quizzical look on her face. I hope she’s not about to ask if I’m supposed to be in school. She smiles. “Oh, hi, Travis.”

We’ve stopped, so I try to look past Sheila and into the office. We have a few shared memories in this place. “So were you going to work with the new doc?”

Sheila thrusts a hand in her pocket to fish out some gum. As she removes it from the wrapper, the edge of her eyes taking in Madken, she says, “Oh, maybe. Mostly I came to see if I left anything of mine in the desk. And Dr. Kendall is offering grief counseling, if you know what I mean. How about you?”

My turn to pause before saying, “Counseling, yeah, I guess that’s not a bad idea.”

After pushing her hand through her straw-colored strands, Sheila lets her golden eyes rest on my face. Her shoulders slump, and her eyes go downward as she suggests, “We could do it together. That’s if you don’t mind.”

Almost too quickly I respond, “I’ll give it some thought.” Sheila’s face slowly sinks. So I add, “Sure, why not?”

After the moment’s awkwardness, I turn to Madken, who is waiting patiently for us to finish. She smiles a big toothed grin, and her steel blue eyes study me closely, “Well, that sounds like an excellent plan. If you would just step into my office, Travis, I’ll get you that excuse slip. So you can get to your class.”

Her hand extends toward the doorway beyond Sheila. I have to refrain from slapping my forehead. “Ah, Madeline Kendall. I’m sorry, doctor. I should have put that together earlier.”

I start to think that someone might have coached her about my soft spot for the atrium. Pushing that out of my mind, I follow her. It leaves me feeling like a misguided minnow, following a shark to lunch. Well, at least we’ve already done lunch.

Madeline cheerily suggests, “Please feel free to visit me anytime you feel a need.”

The key is in how to fit as much into the scenes from the POV in a way that makes some sense and tries to be organic and breaking it into three scenes to avoid trying to describe everything that happens and including things that might tend to bog the story down.
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I feel like there may be two different questions here. One is how to present each scene smoothly and the second is how to make the sequence of scenes flow naturally. I'm not sure I can give any general purpose advice, but I can describe how I try to handle these issues and leave it up to others to decide if it applies.

On opening a scene, I try to get the Who and Where presented in the first several lines. Tell the reader which characters are involved and what their surroundings look like. I also try to make it clear who the PoV character is. This is a good time to use descriptive details. I find it best if the PoV character is active (it doesn't need to be an action scene, just have movement). A character at a fair could be pushing his or her way through crowds or buying cotton candy; anything to engage the reader's sense of something happening.

I find that I will close a scene immediately after having accomplished the purpose of the scene. Most often, I find it helpful to highlight the piece of information by repeating it in some fashion just to make sure the reader grasped it. Other times, however, I've merely stopped right after the info reveal; this is sometimes sufficient to lock the detail into the reader's mind.

As for the scene flow, I like the 3 P model by Brandon Sanderson that I recently saw: Promise, Progress, Payoff. In Promise, establish some reason for the scenes to follow. Perhaps the characters are searching for clues. Perhaps the characters are strangers that are to meet up. In the latter case, nudge the reader into believing that they should meet up. For each of the scenes, the reader needs to understand how it contributes to fulfilling (or obscuring!) the Promise. Eventually, each of the scenes should play into and support the actual Payoff where the characters either achieve or fail to achieve their promised goal.

I know that is sort of vague, but those are the concepts that I have found useful. I hope this helps something lick with you.
Your POV choice will affect the approach, but in general I try always to take the POV of a character, even if I'm writing in omniscient. So, Char walks into the festival. From where? Which side? What do they see? You don't need to write that part, but know what it is. And why is Char here? Are they meeting someone? Looking to get drunk and party?

Knowing these things help determine where Char walks (or flies!), and thus what they see, and thus which of your scenes they encounter. Then you can move down a level and think about what they experienced in Scene A and, this is important, how they react to that. This in turn conditions how they enter Scene B and what sort of transition to write. Working through all that may help you decide that Scene G doesn't need to be here at the festival at all but can occur elsewhere.

Some writers don't need to plan all that out. They just tag along with Char, walk into the festival, and let things flow from there. At some level they're still doing the above, but they do it from a different approach. The thing in common is to have the reasons for witnessing or participating in various scenes be *character* reasons. The description I read in the OP sounds like plot reasons. That's a necessary perspective, but it tends to add things to the story and is of little help in deciding what to cut and how to order scenes.
@sknox that's helpful thanks! I think part of the issue is I need to get more logic into which POV I follow and for how long. With the festival example it's character-plot and setting/exposition type stuff that needs laying out at the start of the story if that makes sense, so the characters' bundles of motivations and feelings are really what we're there for, the festival feels like a very organic way of doing it as it's when the characters get brought out of their daily life and confronted with this stuff. (S feels like she's failing as a mother, M is struggling with imposter syndrome, here is what marriage looks like in their community). I guess working out how many POVs I'd need for that, and what could be shown through another's eyes, is a good place to start.

@Bramandin it likely has a lot to do with pacing, my first draft has been mostly pantsed and now i'm trying to review it and work out where it is lacking and how to begin draft 1.1.
@Swank as a teenager i wrote so much unnecessary pretty waffle, now I have the opposite problem and tend to dive straight in and straight out again without fleshing it out enough if I'm not careful!
@The Judge it's mostly where to start - my inclination is to start with the character, with stuff that is likely unnecessary, or if I skip that, to make it too bare, if that makes sense, and i'm not sure where the balance is in the middle at the moment.
as a teenager i wrote so much unnecessary pretty waffle, now I have the opposite problem and tend to dive straight in and straight out again without fleshing it out enough if I'm not careful!
Do flesh it out! Just consider doing it second.
>character-plot and setting/exposition type stuff that needs laying out at the start of the story if that makes sense
Take a closer look at that statement. This stuff needs laying out. Says who?

Says you, of course. But does the *story* need it? Or, to approach the question differently, what if you showed only one character's struggle in an opening scene? When I think of other stories, I rarely find the story is giving me a whole bundle of motivations all at once. Think of the opening of Lord of the Rings, for example (which conveniently has a similar even under way). We get a number of quite trivial events before Bilbo gives his big speech. Along the way we learn some local dynamics, get the tone of the book (or at least an initial tone), meet a few characters though only superficially. We learn almost nothing about the coming struggle.

By parallel, what if you only follow S? Is there more to her than her worries about her job as mother? Does she have a sense of humor? Is she fascinated by bees? Is she argumentative, timid, daffy?

What I most want (not that you asked!) from opening chapters is characters I care about. And I want them drawn clearly enough for me to have clear feelings: I like this one, admire that one, think this other one is creepy. Later chapters can add nuance, but in the early chapters if there's too much "noise" I'm probably going to bail.

But as author, I of course want to tell the reader *everything* ... because there are so many things I know are going to happen. Here's where being at the character's shoulder really helps. It keeps me focused, forces me to speak only to what's current.

Also not that you asked, this is why I tend to plan out my stories. Only by planning do I know that there's going to be a dragon later, and a betrayal, and a big fight, and so on. I like knowing the dragon comes in Chapter 8, the betrayal a couple chapters after that, and there's a big fight in chapter 5, though not the biggest one. Strictly speaking I don't need to know exactly the chapter number (it tends to slide around a bit anyway), but knowing such things lets me be more patient back in Chapter 2. It also lets me know that I'd better do some foreshadowing before I get to Chapter 8! But not everyone plans. I just offer that fwiw. It does help me choose how to present specific scenes.
So this is stuff that has come from reading through my draft 0 a couple of times and getting a better feel for who my two main protagonists are, what their arc is . I've just finished doing a retrospective outline which will make it easier to slot these things in. What do you mean by noise, and by nuance? Do you like having some 'normal life' stuff before the action proper kicks off? The main thing I'm trying to do with this idea really is anchor myself and the reader firmly inside the main protagonist(s) head, and give them some cultural context that will be relevant later. Part of me is tempted now to do the festival scenes from two points of view, and then choose which one to keep. And I could even have non POV characters reflecting back on the festival in later chapters if it feels right, or otherwise deal with them at later points in the story, directly or indirectly.
By noise I mean what is also called infodump. It's information, but the information doesn't connect to anything about the character, the setting, or the tone of the book. By nuance I mean stuff that would otherwise be called infodump *but* it actually does connect to one of those elements.

It's good to anchor yourself as they author. The reader almost certainly doesn't all that, but only a piece of it. That's the hook. The thing about the world and the character that keeps the reader turning pages. Scrolling. Whatever. <g>

Writing from two POVs might be a good idea. It's one way (for me, the only way) to do that anchoring. You can put in all you want there. On revision, you'll decide what is absolutely needed to move the story forward and cut all the rest.

To return to the question originally posed: there's not a single way to work that out. At least, there's not a way *I* have worked out. It's not at all uncommon to start the story in one place but later realize it needs to start somewhere else. The usual advice is to start it as late as possible. This, like most such advice, is very nearly useless because if I don't know where "start" is, I have no way to measure where "late as possible" is. The only time it's clear is after the dumb book is written. *sigh*.

Nevertheless, I've got a couple of approaches that I've used. Whether or not they work is for the reader to decide. First, the previous scene has made a promise. The story has raised a question--about characters, plot, or other--even if it's only who's going to win the battle or what's inside the box. So the next scene, the one where we're trying to decide where to start, has to deliver on that promise. The end of the scene is, of course, where you raise a new question, making a new promise. I sometimes call this leaning forward, making the reader lean forward to hear what's next.

This has proved helpful for me. It's less helpful for deciding where to start the very first scene. Not just deciding for Chapter One, but also deciding for any introduction, such as where a second POV should initiate. Similarly, it's less helpful for deciding the final scene of the book. What I do (again, not sure how well it works for others) is to treat these special scenes as if they were part of a larger book. So, what happened just before that initial scene? That helps me in actual writing because I'll just write stuff knowing it's likely to be cut. It's writing for myself.

So, in your present case, you could write the MCs from first thing in the morning. Or even earlier. Maybe they were involved in setting up the festival. Maybe they *wanted* to be involved but didn't win the contract or job. Doesn't matter. Just have them doing and thinking and reacting so that when they actual walk onto the grounds, you know what they're feeling and what they intend. Then have them do some stuff, have things not go as planned, have them react. Somewhere along in there, you'll start to get a sense of what places work better as a beginning, and what work less well.

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